Call of the Sea Review — H.P. Likecraft
Call of the Sea is a great start for developer Out of the Blue but didn't entirely capture me on any front, despite standout moments.
When I first saw that Call of the Sea was going to be heavily inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft but wasn’t set to be a horror game, I was skeptical. To me, it seems like the appeal of Lovecraft’s work are the cosmic horror elements. That said, while I do think that Call of the Sea probably would have benefited from leaning more into those themes, I don’t think I was giving the game enough credit with my skepticism.
Call of the Sea is a first-person adventure game and is the debut work from developer Out of the Blue. The game is set in 1934 and follows the adventures of Norah Everhart as she looks for her missing husband on a forgotten island in the South Pacific. Norah retraces the steps of her husband’s expedition, which set out to find a cure for her mysterious illness.
The main gameplay loop in Call of the Sea comes from exploring each chapter to find clues about the expedition’s whereabouts and solving puzzles to uncover the island’s mysteries. While the story is engaging and has enough intrigue to keep you wanting to find more, the puzzles in the first half of the game miss a certain “oomph” for lack of a better term.
As things happen in the story and as you find puzzle items and clues, Norah writes down notes in a journal that can be accessed with the push of a button. By exploring the environments, you’ll find many clues to puzzle solutions that have been left behind by Norah’s husband in the form of collectible documents. The problem is, once you’ve found all the clues to any given puzzle, the solution is essentially written out for you in Norah’s journal.
This could have been an excellent way to help those who struggle with puzzles by giving them hints until they eventually find enough to come to the solution. However, it’s always unclear what the puzzle elements are until you’ve picked up the documents that lay it all out for you. Essentially, it’s impossible to solve the puzzles without giving yourself the solution, and in the first half of the game, Call of the Sea felt like it was playing itself.
I just wish the puzzles were a little bit deeper. It feels like if you explore the area and read the numerous text documents, you’ll just find the solution. There’s very little critical thinking because all you need to do before solving a puzzle is a very surface level scavenger hunt. This sort of easy puzzle solving does make some sense for the game as it’s heavy on narrative, but it feels like the developers are afraid of you missing the story because of a puzzle.
You may have noticed that I said puzzles were simple in the first half of the game. There’s a specific puzzle involving the translation of an ancient language that stumped me for over an hour. I kept thinking that there was something I missed or that I was making things too complicated, but I just could not understand what I was looking at.
Eventually, I got through the section because I emailed the developers begging for help. They kindly walked me through it, but that section left me feeling like the difficulty curve was a little off. The only other puzzle that I struggled with was the final one, but I found its solution very gratifying. It was challenging, but once I had gotten it, Call of the Sea made me feel extremely clever. It was an “ah-ha” moment that was absolutely earned, but it was a little too late—the final puzzle was the only one where I felt truly engaged.
Puzzles aside, Norah is voiced by Cissy Jones who has done great work in other games like Firewatch and The Walking Dead: Season One. Unsurprisingly, she continues to pull off a great performance in Call of the Sea. She perfectly encapsulates Norah by using a slight transatlantic accent that captures the entire vibe of the game. Any problems I have with her performance land more towards the writing than the actual V.O.
While the first few chapters are intriguing and mysterious, the game completely lost me towards the end. Without wishing to spoil anything, some twists and reveals have left me with more questions than answers. As I got closer to the end, I asked myself, “how? Why?” more frequently. The game explains what’s happening with Norah’s story moment to moment fine enough but doesn’t provide a lot of background on why things are happening.
Additionally, there are pretty big existential and life-altering twists that happen as you uncover more about the island that Norah takes pretty well. Given the circumstances, it felt odd that she just took everything at face value. If I had found out that certain things were different than other things that I previously thought they were, I would be a lot more shaken up about it.
Call of the Sea’s narrative is weird and doesn’t tie up its loose ends perfectly, but at least it’s memorable. Whether or not the story resonated with me is irrelevant in that regard and makes me almost want to recommend it for that reason alone.
Despite my distaste for the game’s puzzles and narrative twists, if you’re looking for something with atmosphere and tone, Call of the Sea is your game. As I said before, it’s not a horror game, but the Lovecraftian influence can be seen from the very start.
The art style, sound design, and environments capture elements from Lovecraft’s work while not being outright horrific. There are tense moments throughout that give the story an uneasy feeling, all based on its setting alone. Then, throw in some of the mysteries from the story’s early hours, and you’ve got a stew cooking.
Out of the Blue’s Tatiana Delgado hit the nail on the head in a video released about the production of the game when she said, “we’re trying to focus on the surreal and the oneiric more than the horrific and the grim,” and I think that they deliver on that.
Call of the Sea’s biggest problem is that it can’t decide what kind of puzzle game it wants to be. On one side, it has puzzles that simply exist to break up the flow of collecting documents and examining photographs. On the other side, there are a few challenging puzzles that take critical thinking but stop the narrative’s pace right in its tracks. It feels afraid to pick a side, so instead, it doesn’t and leans on its story to do the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, Call of the Sea’s narrative has a solid start but fizzles out once the mysteries are uncovered.
I think Call of the Sea is a fine start for Out of the Blue. It clearly has some places where it could have been tuned up, but overall a recommendation would have to come with a few caveats. However, because of its place as an Xbox exclusive that can be found on Game Pass, it’s easy enough to give it a try.